MARCH 22, 2017
One of the most important things we learned Monday from the House Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian influence of the 2016 elections was that the hackers may have wanted to get caught. FBI director James Comey said Russia’s cyber intruders were “unusually loud,” as though they “wanted us to see what they were doing.”
That’s counterintuitive. The Russians have officially denied taking active measures in the 2016 election. They have complained that the toxic environment in Washington has scuttled any chance for a reset in the relationship with the U.S. So if Kremlin proxies were meddling in the U.S., why would they want us to know?
Comey says this is because the specter of Russian interference in and of itself instills doubt about our electoral process. It gets people to freak out. It calls into question the legitimacy of the election Donald Trump just won. It divides us.
If that was the mission, then: mission accomplished.
Just consider Monday’s hearing. It was really two hearings. Democrats made the case that Trump associates had deceived the public about their meetings with Russians and that there was at least a circumstantial case that they coordinated with Russia to influence the election against Hillary Clinton. Republicans meanwhile raised the prospect that they may call senior Obama administration officials to find out who disclosed monitored phone calls between Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
This doesn’t even factor in the bombshell announcement from Comey that there has been an active counter-intelligence investigation into Trump since late July. The FBI has investigated presidents before, but the bureau has never confirmed such a probe while it was ongoing. The very fact of the investigation effectively neuters Trump’s presidency in what is supposed to be his honeymoon period.
All of that said, it would be a mistake to put all of this on the Russians. They did hack leading Democrats and doled out tidbits through WikiLeaks before voters went to the polls. Comey confirmed that Russian hackers probed some of the state voter rolls as well. The intelligence community’s report in December concluded that Russia also ran propaganda against Clinton through its television network, RT, and worked with an army of online trolls to defame her.
But none of this gets to the real dilemma for the republic at the moment. The director of the FBI will in a practical sense determine the legitimacy of our elected president. This makes Comey the most powerful person in Washington.
It would be nice to blame the Russians for this sorry state of affairs, but really we can blame only ourselves.
This part of the story begins a month before the bureau begins snooping around about Russia’s effort to influence the election. On June 27, on a tarmac in Phoenix, Attorney General Loretta Lynch met with Bill Clinton for about 45 minutes. We still don’t know all the details of that conversation, but the appearance of impropriety in light of the bureau’s own investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server was enough for Lynch to recuse herself from that process.
That left Comey in the position of being both the cop and the prosecutor. Not even a week later, the FBI director chastised Clinton for her recklessness with the private server, but said no reasonable prosecutor would recommend bringing charges. Republicans were aghast. In subsequent testimony before Congress, Comey promised to keep lawmakers informed of any further developments in the case. He did just that on Oct. 28, when he informed Congress the bureau had learned of new emails in an unconnected case and would be checking them in the week leading up to the election. It turns out it was a false alarm, but to this day, the Clinton camp believes Comey’s announcement did serious political damage to the candidate.
Now enter Trump. The new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Trump investigation because of his role as a surrogate on the Trump campaign and because he falsely denied having met with Russian officials. Yet again, an attorney general has elevated Comey to play an outsize role in our politics.
This is no way to run a great power. It’s also a no-win situation for the FBI. After Monday’s marathon hearing we are left with more questions than answers. Why did Comey, for example, confirm an ongoing investigation into Trump’s associates, but remain mum on whether the bureau would look into who leaked Flynn’s monitored phone calls to the press? Why couldn’t Comey shed any light on what James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, told NBC earlier this month? He said he knew of no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Why did Comey opt not to inform Congress about the Trump investigation in the summer or fall, when he held out the prospect that the Clinton probe would be reopened?
Much of this is on the FBI director. But it’s also an indictment of our current political elites. The last two attorneys general made errors that forced them to abdicate their constitutional responsibility. The steady stream of leaks about the Trump investigation also forced Comey’s hand. Let’s not forget Trump’s own tweets, in which he falsely accused Obama of wiretapping him, which prompted members of both parties to demand Comey address the allegations in open session.
Trump now has Comey’s investigation hanging over his presidency. It’s an irony of course. The man Democrats say helped Trump win the election may end up providing Congress with the means to impeach him. For this sorry state of affairs, Washington only has itself to blame.